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Kodachrome Requiem

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

Last week’s announcement that Eastman Kodak would “retire” Kodak film left many photographers feeling nostalgic, although few apparently still were purchasing the product.  Its passing deserves far more than a quick refrain of Paul Simon’s Kodachrome song although younger generations may be left to wonder if another technology is taking their JPEGs, TIFFs, and GIFs away.

We take more photographs than ever before, thanks in part to the fact that photography, sans film and processing costs, has become almost free.  But this comes at a price: while the earliest photographs (the word photograph means “light images”) such as Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are still visible to the naked eye today, many photographs taken within the past 25 years since the advent of electronic photography outside of the laboratory are no longer accessible.

I first realized this in 1999 and 2000 when I was researching information for the Filmless Photography chapter of the book I co-authored, The History of Photography.  Some of NASA’s earliest pictures of earth have long since become inaccessible.  Digital file standards come and go (try opening up a WordStar or early WordPerfect file on your laptop today).  So little had been written about electronic photography’s early days that my book turned out to be the first book on photography’s history to document that facet.  (The era of still-video cameras, the first generation of filmless cameras that launched in the 1980s, seems to be all but forgotten – we have the first two still-video cameras, the Canon RC-701 (ca. 1984) and the Canon RC-760 (ca. 1987) in The Spira Collection as well as many other cameras that followed in that category but I doubt I could easily retrieve any images still stored within).

The first consumer-grade color digital camera, the Apple QuickTake (who here didn’t know Apple made cameras?) came with QuickTake software on a 3.5″ diskette.  The diskette will certainly be an historical curiosity by the year 2011.   The first professional digital camera, the Kodak DCS (ca. 1991), which was built on a Nikon F3 body and the first digital camera to take images of any reasonable quality (the first digital camera to be sold, the Dycam Model 1, produced images that were suitable for newspaper-quality halftones up to 5×4″), came with a digital storage unit (DSU) that contained a 200 MB hard drive that could hold 160 images.  The Spira Collection has the Kodak and Apple cameras as well – I suppose I should, in the interest of science, plug them in and see what I find.

I’ll leave you with the final two sentences from The History of Photography:  “There will always be some form of recording light images; it is a science that has taken centuries to evolve. What shape it will take in the future has yet to be determined, but each technological advance in photography has served to broaden and deepen its reach.”

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.